Ed Wood: The Hudson Valley Origins of the ‘Worst Filmmaker Ever’
If you're something of a movie buff, you might know the name Ed Wood. There are many reasons for this; he was around during the Golden Age of Hollywood, he was played by Johnny Depp--I mean, heck, he had a major mid-90s Tim Burton movie with his name as the title.
Ed Wood laid the groundwork and foundation for the entire concept of a B-movie. ... In a strange way, Ed Wood was a pioneer. A pioneer of low-budget, so-bad-it's-good badness.
But, for a long time, what many people have said about him is that he is the "Worst Filmmaker of All-Time." It's weird that this would even be a title, isn't it? I mean, if someone is so incredibly bad at making movies--to the degree that they've been bestowed a title for their complete lack of talent--why would anyone allow that person to keep making them? Movies don't just pop-up out of thin air, they need funding. Who is going to continue funding a filmmaker that everyone thinks is a bum?
That, to me, is the essence of Ed Wood and what makes him so fascinating. Ed Wood had tenacity. Ed Wood had some gumption. Ed Wood had a dream of being a big deal in Hollywood, to be a director, and he was never going to stop pursuing that dream. In many ways, Ed Wood laid the groundwork and foundation for the entire concept of a B-movie. Direct-to-video probably wouldn't exist without him, nor would, perhaps, the schlocky over-the-top low-budget horror films that were sprinkled throughout the 1980s cinema landscape. In a strange way, Ed Wood was a pioneer. A pioneer of low-budget, so-bad-it's-good badness.
Young Ed Wood, Bardavon Garbage Raider
What might be of interest to you, as it was to me as someone who grew up right here in the Hudson Valley, is that, well, so did Ed Wood. The man was born in Poughkeepsie in 1924, and not in the sense of "born nearby and moved before he could speak." No, Ed Wood's formative years were spent here, and it was likely in Poughkeepsie where his love of film originated. He loved Westerns and would regularly skip school in order to visit the Bardavon to watch movies and raid the garbage for stills from the film. Later, he would work as an usher at the theater. Meanwhile his interest in actually making films was blossoming, as he began filming things--like the flight of the Hindenburg as it flew over the Hudson Valley en route to its disastrous ending.
He loved Westerns and would regularly skip school in order to visit the Bardavon to watch movies and raid the garbage for stills from the film.
(It may be worth noting that it was also here in Poughkeepsie where he would develop another life-long passion: his penchant for privately dressing in women's clothes, which, according to Rudolph Grey's biography of Wood, Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr., began with his mother began dressing him as a girl out of her regret that she did not have a daughter.)
From Poughkeepsie High School to Orgy of the Dead
After graduating from Poughkeepsie High School in 1941, and serving in the Marines in World War II, Wood would begin his career in Hollywood, eventually being introduced to one of the true icons of cinema, a man whose interpretation of Dracula has become the standard, one Bela Lugosi.
He began to work furiously as both a writer and a director, most of the projects being low-budget and featuring themes outside of what was displayed in mainstream pictures--Glen or Glenda tackles the concept of gender roles and sexuality, Orgy of the Dead features... well, you can figure that one out--and striving, relentlessly, to create enduring works of art that would inspire in the way the films of his youth inspired him without compromising the open-minded eccentricity that made him such a unique figure.
The Plan 9 From Outer Space Era
The most iconic of the movies he made during the 1950s, and probably the landmark picture of his career is Plan 9 From Outer Space, his attempt at a sprawling sci-fi film, the production of which was nothing short of a comedy of errors and misfortune.
...obstacles were so commonly encountered by Wood that the gaffes and weird quirks became hallmarks of his films and some of the aspects that later audiences grew to love about his work.
Written in two weeks as Grave Diggers from Outer Space but changed to Plan 9 From Outer Space after the Baptist church that funded the movie protested (Wood took funding wherever he could get it), the movie featured random footage of Bela Lugosi that Ed Wood had previously shot and spliced into this movie in order to give the film some star power and credibility with horror fans.
(Lugosi, by the way, died months before the film even began shooting.)
It features all sorts of shifty budget-managing tricks, like casting random friends and acquaintances in key roles, and even employing one to act as a stand-in for Lugosi, despite having little in common with the man physically. This is all in addition to numerous, noticeable errors and glitches that one can easily catch on even a cursory viewing of the film (someone holding a gun backwards, for instance).
Such obstacles were so commonly encountered by Wood that the gaffes and weird quirks became hallmarks of his films and some of the aspects that later audiences grew to love about his work. Unfortunately, it also led to Wood mostly toiling in the obscurity of the Hollywood gutter, pumping out crass exploitation films with nothing but nudity and violence--borderline pornography in some instances--with loose plot lines and looser standards for what could be considered "acting."
The Tao of Ed
It's arguable that, had Ed Wood in all of his uniqueness and, for lack of a better term, weirdness, begun his career in the era of independent cinema 40 years later, he would have been able to find his niche and found an audience in his lifetime. Instead, it took the generations who came of age after his passing to latch on to his work, a generation which now holds him as the godfather of low budget, independent cinema.
...on a local level, some folks were (are?) trying to make an Ed Wood statue a reality in Poughkeepsie.
It's not difficult to trace the lineage of Wood's movies to those splatterfests of the 1980s from Troma Films and other studios. His spirit of uncompromising vision and individualism is apparent in everyone from Quentin Tarantino to Richard Linklater to David Lynch--not that I would ever make the direct comparison between the work of those filmmakers and Wood.
So beloved is Ed Wood that there is an actual church based around his philosophy of challenging society's idea of sex and gender and decency and whatever else could be challenged. Seriously. There are people that worship what they believe to be the philosophy of Ed Wood. I'm not kidding! There's a website here!
Not only that, but on a local level, some folks were (are?) trying to make an Ed Wood statue a reality in Poughkeepsie, which you can find out about here.
And to think... it all started with a daydreaming boy from Poughkeepsie.
Thanks to the concept of public domain, we can all enjoy ourselves some Ed Wood greatness now together!